Geo-Economics and Politics

Why the populist right is winning the refugee debate – and how to stop them

A migrant girl plays on a swing outside of a refugee shelter which focuses on women and families, in Berlin, Germany March 3, 2016.

Image: REUTERS/Stefanie Loos

Brendan Cox
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In the last year the increasing number of refugees entering Europe has shaken the continent and sent shockwaves far beyond. In most countries the populist right has seized the initiative and created a pervading sense of crisis, helped on by fearful or hapless political leaders with a few notable exceptions. I’ve spent the last six months travelling across Europe meeting with refugees, politicians and activists to understand why the populists are dominating this debate and what can be done do to stop them.

To start with - here are five reasons why they are winning:

1) The populist right are better organised: In most countries the actively supportive constituency and the hostile constituency are about the same size as each other (roughly 25% at each end of the spectrum). The problem is that the hostile constituency is much better organised. They have their own political parties focussed almost exclusively on this issue (Britain's UKIP, Germany's AfD, France's Front national, the Swedish Democrats), active street movements (from Pegida in Germany to the English Defence League) and a highly active online propaganda machine. Meanwhile, the supportive groups have a few badly funded NGOs and a social media hashtag. In addition, progressive organisations with strong organising ability (whether political parties, trade unions or pressure groups) generally haven’t prioritised the crisis in the way the populist right have. All of this has meant that the populist right have shifted the politics and the public debate of the issue far more than their actual numbers dictate.

Image: Reuters

2) The populist right care what people think: the populist right gets what most progressive constituencies don’t: that power on this issue doesn’t lie primarily with politicians or elites, it lies with the public and what they think. The populist right spends their time trying to influence this, while the supportive constituencies focus on practical support, policy work and lobbying. In Germany for example, huge amounts of energy from the supportive constituency is channeled into practical support, from mentoring to language training. This is hugely valuable but the focus on this above all else has left the public narrative almost uncontested (especially online) for the populist right to exploit. At a more political level the organisations and activists on the supportive side spend the vast majority of their time lobbying politicians and discussing policy options, and very little on engaging and influencing the public. While there are significant opportunities to influence the media debate, most of the existing sector doesn’t have the skills or experience to make the most of them.

3) What people think doesn’t (primarily) relate to the facts but to perceptions and emotions. That’s why in a country like Poland, immigration can dominate a national election debate, despite the country being 97% white catholic (and immigration levels being at a level where the immigration officers probably remember all the applicants names). It’s why in the aftermath of the Paris attacks debates about terrorism and refugee policy have merged in many countries; despite the fact that no refugees were involved in the Paris attacks. The populist right are extremely adroit at exploiting this and tapping into people’s emotions, even where there is scant or even contradictory evidence. The supportive constituency meanwhile tries to combat this by ‘myth busting’. Not only does this not work, in most cases it actually reinforces the negative frames of the arguments they are trying to rebut.

4) The populists are effectively tapping into wider insecurities. This is nothing new. But at a time of growing insecurity it’s a dangerous breeding ground. With high levels of economic insecurity, large scale political disillusionment with ‘mainstream’ politics and growing concerns over terrorism, the populist right have been adept at linking the immigration and refugee debates to the growing insecurities of the host population.

5) Governments have no public strategy. Mainstream politicians in most cases are clueless on how to deal with the public debate. Petrified by the rise of the populists they try to neuter them by taking their ground and aping their rhetoric. Far from closing down the debates, these steps legitimise their views, reinforce their frames and pull the debate further to the extremes (Sarkozy and the continuing rise of Front National is a case in point). Governments also often focus on the wrong issues. They obsess over numbers (to most people 10,000 sounds as scary as 100,000) where they should focus on reinforcing frames of fairness and order. The UK government policy is a masterclass in how to get the crisis wrong; set an unrealistic target, miss it, report on it quarterly and in doing so show a complete lack of control heightening concern and fanning the flames of resentment.

Syrian refugees arrive at the camp for refugees and migrants in Friedland, Germany April 4, 2016. The first group of Syrian refugees arrived in Germany by plane from Turkey under a new deal between the European Union and Ankara to combat human trafficking and bring migration under control, German police said on Monday.
Syrian refugees arrive at the camp for refugees and migrants in Friedland, Germany April 4, 2016. Image: REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

So, on the surface it’s a fairly depressing picture. But dig a little deeper and there are (at least) four reasons to be optimistic about the possibility of turning the tide:

1) Mainstream opinion is more progressive than you think. In a recent multi-country study, the Tent Foundation found majorities in every country (apart from Hungary) in favour of accepting refugees and an average across the countries of 73% in support. The populist right are hugely active but they are struggling to break out of their minority niche. Not only that but the attacks in Paris and assaults in Cologne - while they did change the media debate - didn’t substantially shift public attitudes. Support for refugees even after those events only fell by 2% (within the margin of error). This suggests that the base of public support may be more robust than many expected and a strong base on which to build.

Image: Tent Tracker; Global Survey October 2015 and January 2016

2) The supportive constituencies are highly motivated but under-utilised. For example, 16% of people say they would open up their homes to refugees. More widely, 53% of the public say they would like to do more to help, of whom 27% declare that the reason they haven’t done more is they don’t know how to do so. If we can provide more effective ways for these constituencies to engage there is a large and highly motivated group who could effectively take on the mobilised populist right and provide a counter balance to their influence.

3) Demographic trends are on our side. In almost all countries, young people are more progressive than older people. In the US, UK and France, young people (18-34) are between three and four times more supportive than older people. In addition, people who know refugees and immigrants are much more likely to be supportive of them and of migration as a whole. As our societies become more diverse and immigration reaches more communities, more communities are likely to become less prejudiced and more supportive. Like the battle for LGBT rights, there could be a tipping point when debates stop being abstract and start to be based on personal experience.

4) We have great allies. If you were to design an ideal set of campaign allies you would want to unite labour unions and big business, faith groups and the fashion industry, football and public intellectuals. In most countries these groups are already supportive though under-leveraged. What is needed is a strategy to bring them together, reduce the political risk to them individually and increase their collective impact.

The refugee crisis and the wider migration debate are here to stay. We need to engage in them at the level of public debate as well as policy. If we do so effectively there is no reason we can’t quickly shift the debate back to the mainstream and in doing so not only help refugees and migrants, but also help marginalise the resurgent populist right. To do so we need to readjust our efforts to reflect that power on this issue is with the people.

This is part of a series of articles linked to the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit, including:

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